How not to be a continental giant, By Zainab Suleiman Okino

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Zainab Suleiman Okino

Continental Giant: Since 1994 after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s foreign policy has been decidedly robust, developmental, and principled without being isolationist. Described as a “middle-ranked power in Africa”, South Africa has been able to “punch above its weight” to possibly “influence world affairs”.  This is apparent in the way SA manages its complex relationships with opposing world powers such as USA, China, and Russia even as it continues to take bold decisions in respect of Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Palestine wars, such that anybody with a passing interest in world politics can easily recall SA’s posture.

On the contrary, South Africa’s former benefactor and big brother, Nigeria is taking either baby steps or none on these issues. In the 70s and 80s, Nigeria’s foreign policy focus was easily discernible. Our forebears set a standard right from independence and even helped found Organisations of African Unity (OAU) and Non-Aligned Movement.

Nigeria’s foreign policy during Murtala/Obasanjo regime was assertive and Afro-centric; it was dedicated to the total emancipation of Africa; Nigeria galvanized political, financial, and diplomatic backing for SA and Angola against minority rule; as a result, Nigeria was conferred with the status of a frontline state even though it is not bordered by southern Africa. The Murtala-Obasanjo also condemned foreign involvement in Angola and gave financial support to MPLA under Agostinho Neto.  

Their (Murtala/Obasanjo) time was generally perceived as the golden era of Nigeria’s foreign policy. The country started wobbling when the political class started muddling things up; putting square pegs in round holes and sometimes diplomatic decisions are influenced by our complex diversity and religious divisions; issues that should be poles apart from diplomacy.

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Having suffered apartheid and racial discrimination, SA acquired a moral authority to advocate for international world order. And it seems to be doing relatively well especially with their recent position on controversial issues of Palestine-Israel and Ukraine-Russia before. Before SA took Israel to the judicial arm of the United Nations (UN), the International Criminal Court of Justice, it was already active on the “frontline” in the Ukraine-Russia war on which President Cyril Ramaphosa stated unequivocally that his country would “not condone the use of force and violation of the international law” but at the same time would not take a “very adversarial stance against Russia”, as against Nigeria who, like other developing countries, supported the West and NATO against Russia. For SA, it is understandable though. The relationship between Russia and SA dated to the cold war era. Unlike the US, who condoned the injustice and apartheid regime and was against the ANC which they called a terrorist group, the ANC got material and moral cushioning from Russia. 

No doubt, there has been mutual suspicion between the US and SA over the latter’s position. On the first anniversary of the Ukraine-Russia war, SA hosted Russian and Chinese navies perform drills off the coast of SA, which it explained away thus: “all countries conduct military drills with friends worldwide”. Yet in another drift, SA is said to be“actively non-aligned” and refused to join Western coalition against Russia. South Africa has also abstained from all UNGA resolutions in the Ukraine-Russia conflict and shows neutrality when the need arises.

Despite its subtle support for Russia, in June 2022, SA initiated and led a seven-nation African delegation peace mission to both Ukraine and Russia, in yet another show of impartiality and leadership.This trip was undertaken without Nigeria’s imputes or being part of. This again strategically places SA as a decisive voice in Africa, whereas Nigeria is neither here nor there in a poor rendition of diplomacy and smacks of rudderless leadership.

In a recent conversation with Arise TV on the Gaza issue versus SA’s proactive stance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yusuf Tuggar blamed Nigeria’s inaction on absence of diplomacy: “diplomacy is not being allowed to play the role that it should. And, we’re living in a different era where social media plays a very critical role in shaping narratives and that’s why we need to get back to what diplomats used to do”. How else do you play diplomacy like SA is doing now, and what has social media got to do with the matter at hand? Pray, when will our own diplomats start playing their roles?

South Africa recently called the bluff of US by allowing China tech giant, Huawei into SA, which always extends a hand of fellowship to US’s traditional enemies, but still does not antagonize the US and its allies. For example, SA trades with both China and Russia but its exports to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) stands at 11%. Isn’t this how to cleverly play world politics, just like the US does all over the world?

With regards to the ongoing annihilation of Palestine by Israel after Hamas’ October 7 attack, South Africa has declared where its support is, seeing their liberation struggle as akin to what Palestine is going through. Israel’s attacks, targeting humanitarian corridors, killing of women and children and destruction of hospitals and educational institutions have attracted protests all over the world but irked, and spurred SA to initiate a genocide case against Israel. 
The world waits anxiously in the hope that the ICJ case will deter Israel from further destruction of Palestine, even as the world also reckons with Israel’s intransigence, having disobeyed 45 UN resolutions on the illegal occupation of Palestine. Now genocide has been added to Israel’s growing crimes against their Palestinian neighbours, thanks to South Africa.

Their principled stand in the liberation struggles is also in recognition of leadership and responsibility, and not the privilege of number and size that Nigeria glows in. Surely Nigeria needs to do more to claim its rightful place in the committee of nations instead of shamelessly burying its head in the sand as it is currently.

Let me end this piece with a scholarly write up written by Christopher S. Chivvis, Zainab Usman and Beatrix Geagan-Breiner titled South Africa in the Emerging World. “With Africa’s most industrialized economy, natural resource endowments, investments in other African countries, and diplomatic clout, South Africa is a clear leader on the continent”. Such is the niche South Africa has carved out for itself. And at the appropriate time, and in the race for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council for Africa, SA’s efforts and shuttle diplomacy may count for good for the rainbow nation.

Zainab Suleiman Okino is a syndicated columnist and can be reached via [email protected]

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